Back now in sensible Sweden; whose newspapers report British politics pretty accurately – Dagens Nyheter’s UK correspondent lives in London and is married to, or partnered by, an Engelsman – but hardly flatteringly. From over here the goings-on in my country of birth appear almost unbelievable, and inconceivable to the ever-rational Swedes; although with politics pretty fluid here currently, and crazy Trumpian opinions just beginning to emerge, that may not last.
Of course the Swedes are right as regards Britain: ‘O wad some Power the giftie gie us, to see oursels as others see us!’ (Burns, of course. Trust the Scots.) British government is indeed descending into what seems to be very much like farce just now; not merely error and stupidity (Brexit), but something far crazier. Boris started it, and was admired by those who appreciated the fun he injected into politics. Then we had, briefly, the inordinately stupid Liz Truss, who in just a few weeks brought the British economy to its knees. Now we’ve got the already disgraced Matt Hancock MP, putting the ‘fun’ before everything, including proper politics and his own constituents, by appearing in a popular TV ‘reality’ programme, I’m a Celebrity: Get me out of here; where he has to sleep rough in an Australian jungle and endure crawling among rats and poisonous spiders in the dark, and with shit poured on him, before eating ostrich anuses (ani?) and raw kangaroo penises (penes?), in full camera view. (That’s as reported. I’ve not watched it myself.) Hancock claims he’s doing this in order to bring politics to the people; but it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that his £400,000 fee didn’t have something to do with it. And then there’s Gavin Williamson (with his bullying and his pet tarantula), Nadine Dorries (another anus-eating I’m a Celebrity contestant); and always, of course, those two pre-eminent clowns Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg, to keep the farcical side of this whole theatrical event, a.k.a. a ‘Tory Government’, in full public view. Would Sweden, or any other country on earth, tolerate this kind of thing? Although they might recognise it in Britain’s case from Monty Python – ever popular in Sweden – and, if they go back that far, the Goon Show. But those weren’t meant to be real. They are now.
Programmes like this however may have been partly responsible for diluting the seriousness of British politics. That’s what many of the political clowns I’ve just referenced seem to lack any appreciation of. Many people – Tories especially – seem to go into politics not in order to further great causes (or even minor ones), but simply as a career opportunity, and as a kind of game, there for the ‘winning’, by fair means or foul. Other TV programmes, not intended to be comedic, contribute to this. House of Cards, West Wing, The Thick of It, and even the excellent Danish Borgen, concentrated almost exclusively on individual character, machinations, plots and personalities, to the detriment of what Tony Benn used to call ‘the ishoos’; as they are probably bound to, as dramas involving actors, and so requiring their audiences to empathise – or otherwise – with them as people. This of course goes back a long way. Shakespeare’s political plays – Julius Caesar, King Lear, the English ‘Histories’, Macbeth, Anthony and Cleopatra – oh, most of them – are exactly the same. That’s how (educated) Britons learn their politics. (And it’s probably how Boris Johnson will frame his study of Shakespeare – if he ever gets back to writing it, in between his luxurious holidays in Mustique.) Most people only appreciate politics as personal drama. Look at all the coverage of it in the tabloid press today.
Has it ever been better? I remember its being at least a little less trivial from the 1950s through to the 1970s – maybe a little longer – before the popular press became quite as ‘down’ on politics and politicians as it is today. But the press is just another branch of ‘entertainment’, after all. And for many of its readers farce is the most appealing genre of entertainment; including the Whitehall sort.